Older People




One of the towering figures in gerontology has died : James E. Birren, founding

Director of the Andrus Gerontology Center, at the University of Southern California,

died at the age of 97.  His achievements were extraordinary   Foremost among these,

is creation of the Andrus Gerontology Center at USC, as well as the Leonard Davis

School of Gerontology.  His books and other publications are extensive, and many

distinguished gerontologists have been  nurtured by Jim Birren.  To get just a glimpse of

these, visit:



Jim Birren, then in his late sixties, was only getting started. His 30-year

retirement would witness pioneering work in areas far removed from the behavioral

psychology in which he began his own academic work in the 1940s.  Like a small

number of distinguished psychologists (e.g., Jerome Bruner and Leon Festinger),

Birren would “go boldly where no one has gone before” toward the in-depth

exploration of wisdom, autobiography, and the search for meaning.  His generativity

didn’t stop with his retirement nor will it stop now that he has left our world.  Instead,

we are all inheritors of the vision of “positive aging” that he has left behind.

This is the book that has been hugely influential in my own thinking about old age


For more on guided autobiography, visit:



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P. G. Coleman, D. Koleva and J. Bornat, eds., Ageing, Ritual and Social

Change: Comparing the Secular and Religious in Eastern and Western

Europe. Farnham and Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2013. Pp. xviii,

283. Pb. £19.99. ISBN 978-1-4094-5215-7.

This volume is a compelling and authoritative contribution to the literature

that seeks to understand our quest for meaning in later life. The twelve

essays, carefully organised and edited, make a significant contribution to

our understanding of the nature of ageing in human society and within

two different areas of Europe. The technical nature of this writing may

make the book over-specialised for the general reader, but its findings

have significant implications for our understanding of religion and its

practices in Europe today.


In a variety of ways, we are asked to consider whether and in what

way religion might contribute to our well-being, particularly in old age.

We are encouraged to reflect on this intriguing question by a rich variety

of shared narratives that offer the reader insight into the ways in which

value and belief enable individuals and communities to live through

the physical processes of ageing. These discussions are contextualised

within the experience of rapid social change across Europe. A distinctive

feature of this book is that it offers a dialogue between the increasingly

secular culture of the UK and the more traditional religious communities

of former socialist countries where religion has a very different place

in family and community. We learn in these narratives of the essential

and existential support that religion provides to enable people to cope

with social loss and physical frailty. A picture emerges of how older

people play a role in the holding together of religious communities and

in transmitting the Christian faith to younger generations. As the interrelationship

between ageing, ritual and social change is examined, we note

the profound value of older people in religious communities and see how

religion can contribute to a good old age.

The book is organised into five sections. Section One offers a

background which includes an overview of ageing and ritual in Europe;

and a discussion of the methods of investigation and in particular oral

history. The largest section of the book (chapters 3–6) provides an analysis

of the major questions which underlie the research project behind the

book; the emergence of religiosity and non-religiosity in people’s lives;

personal explanations for engagement in ritual practice; and continuing

commitment to religious ritual in otherwise non-religious people. The

next two sections examine the role of religion in enabling adjustment to

ageing. This includes a focus on death and bereavement. The final section

of the book offers a discussion on what conclusions can be drawn from

the project. Throughout the book, there is meticulous documentation of

sources with a helpful set of appendices, bibliography and index.

Why, then, should the general reader of theology take notice of this?

In addressing issues of numerical decline, the Church often laments in

having to inhabit a demography of an ageing Church. It may follow that

many of our strategies (and the theologies that support them) promote

implicit and explicit ageism. This is serious for our understanding of age,

for older people and for our attitudes to them. This book and its findings

show us that it might be possible to hold together some inter-generational

equity whereby we might counteract negative stereotypes and the

marginalisation of our ageing congregations. Older people may be our

natural spiritual constituency and a vital part of sustaining the religious

and spiritual life of our communities.


James Woodward



“At fifteen I was committed to learning.

At thirty I took my rightful position.

At forty, I was no longer totally perplexed.

At fifty, I began to understand the unfolding

of my true nature.

At sixty, I was in harmony with contradictions

and ambivalence.

A seventy, at long last, I may follow my heart’s desire

without going astray.”


-Confucius at the age of Seventy




Last month my wife and I were on a Road Scholar trip in Europe and we were having dinner with a Japanese woman.  We got to talking about age and she asked how old I was. “Seventy” I replied, thinking of Gloria Steinem’s apt phrase, “This is how 70 looks.”  Our dinner partner said to me, “No!  You don’t look 70 at all,” and I instantly felt a tinge of pride at my good health, appearance, and vitality.  Then she quickly added, “But then, Caucasians never do look their age.” I instantly felt an encounter with reality.


The incident reminded me of the time I turned 65 and had my first chance to get the senior discount at a museum.  As I went up to the cashier I fumbled for my driver’s license, expecting to be “carded” to prove my eligibility.  Before I could reach into my pocket, the cashier said, “Don’t bother.  You clearly qualify.” Once again, “reality therapy” for gerontologists,          How do I do Morris, who used to tell me “I feel like I’m 18 inside.”


The truth is doctors get sick, funeral directors die, and gerontologists grow old.  I once convened the first symposium on plastic surgery at a gerontological conference: “Face Lifts and Tummy Tucks in an Aging Society.”  It was also the last symposium of its kind.  Some topics in aging we just want to avoid.  I get the impression that many of us in the “field of aging” don’t want to talk much about our own attitudes toward what it means to look, or to feel, our age.  It’s a conversation we ought to be having.


See “This Is What 80 Looks Like” at: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/23/opinion/sunday/collins-this-is-what-80-looks-like.html?_r=0
HR Moody



“Age puzzles me. I thought it was a quiet time. My seventies were

interesting and fairly serene, but my eighties are passionate. I grow more

intense as I age…


We who are old know that age is more than a disability. It is an intense

and varied experience, almost beyond our capacity at times, but something

to be carried high.”


-Florida Scott-Maxwell, The Measure of My Days


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From 1998 through to 2009, I had the privilege of working with many hundreds of older people in an Almshouse charity. We lived together in rather splendid seventeenth-century buildings which were surprisingly adaptable for modern use.

I remember meeting one frail older woman on her admission for care into our community. This move was for her and her children a last resort but keeping her at home with part-time support was simply no longer safe or feasible. When I met Nancy she was withdrawn and anxious. Her children had brought with her a number of personal effects including some pieces of furniture together with some pictures, photographs and four boxes which were stacked in the corner of her new sitting room.

I returned a week later to find our newest resident a little more settled and dressed, making a cup of tea in her kitchen. I joined her in some mid-morning refreshment and asked her whether there was anything practical I could do to help, acknowledging as I did so the difficulties and  challenges  that faces all when negotiating the transition .  ‘ Oh good ! ‘   she replied to  the  offer of my help.     ‘I was a bit bothered  that you are going to ask me  about all that church stuff ‘.  We talked a little more and I explained something of the history of this particular charity and my role as both the Chief Executive Officer and the Vicar of the parish. We talked about the church school which was on the site as I learnt in the opening up of our lives to each other that she had been a  teacher .’  I’d like some help with those boxes ‘ is,  she said .  I placed them into the middle of the room and struggled a little with their size and weight. On opening the first box I discovered a  collection  of books –  ‘  There are precisely enough books in those four boxes  to fill the two oak bookshelves  – now let’s  organise organise them?’ Is  was Nancy’s  clear direction !


So the next two hours was spent looking through this small collection of books. I learnt that they were but a fragment of a much larger library and that a great deal of time and effort had gone into deciding which books should come with her into this new home. They were an extraordinary collection. There were travel books and guides and we talked about Suffolk, Northumberland, Central London and Wales. We exchanged reflections on buildings and people and accents. There were poetry books and movingly she recited poems by heart, telling me very firmly which one she would like to have read at her funeral service. There were novels and classics such as Chaucer and Shakespeare. There were books about photography and painting, and above all,  history. ‘ ‘History is my thing’ she exclaimed,   Gradually The library  took shape  and I was careful to organise them according to her wishes. Each book told a story. Each book was carefully inscribed with her name, the date of purchase and the place of purchase. Often there was a card tucked into the inside cover with notes about questions or issues to follow-up or parts of the book that she wanted to be reminded about. In some of the books there were letters and postcards and bookmarks, all of which told a particular story.

I often think of this particular morning spent with those books and how they enabled us to connect with shared interests and enthusiasms. They enabled that old, frail woman, who, as it happens, was only months away from her death, to have a voice and a history and a narrative. They enabled me to see beyond her immediate physical needs into the richness of her experience. I glimpsed what a difference she had made to many generations of children through her work in education. I deliberately share this personal story rather in this way because it focuses some of what working with older people and reflecting on the place of age in contemporary society might mean for researchers and practitioners. Nancy taught me about listening carefully to the experience of older people in all its richness and complexity. As we listen we learn that older people have a particular range of spiritual and religious needs that we easily overlook if we do not take time tolook beyond the immediate and indeed the physical.

Whatever our age, we should also be cognisant of how our inner lives might be shaped by our ability, or otherwise, to negotiate loss, change and ultimately our mortality. Churches may well have a unique role in enabling these conversations to take place. I  hope that we will expand our awareness and understanding of the nature of the spiritual needs of older people as together from our various professional perspectives, we work for justice for older people, their dignity and empowerment in the provision of the best possible support and care wherever and however they age.





On my last birthday I was ninety-three years old. That is not young, of course.

In fact, it is older than ninety. But age is a relative matter.

If you continue to work and to absorb the beauty in the world about you, you find that age does not necessarily mean getting old.

At least, not in the ordinary sense.

I feel many things more intensely than ever before, and for me life grows more fascinating.

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